Review: Lights Out – The value of a good monster

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BEFORE I saw Lights Out, I was feeling pretty ambivalent. On the one hand, the short film that it’s based on is fantastic; on the other, the feature adaptation was produced by James Wan, director of The Conjuring and Insidious: Chapter 2, and the trailer for Lights Out made it look like yet another unimaginative jump-scare film. So – does first-time feature director David Sandberg’s adaptation of his own short film live up to the promise of its source material

The answer is yes, and no. On the one hand, the film is terrible in most ways: the characters are uninteresting, unrelatable and profoundly stupid; the plot is fairly uninspiring; and the monster’s powers are simultaneously so vast and so ill-defined that there’s no reason why it doesn’t kill everyone it wants to kill in the first reel. The script is mediocre, and so predictable that I was able to call the ending about 25 minutes into the film. Still, though, I enjoyed myself, and even now, nearly 24 hours after seeing it, I have that warm, satisfied feeling that comes from having watched a good – or at least good enough – film.

Why? It can’t just be because I saw it in a cinema – I saw The BFG in a cinema and that was fucking dreadful. I have good taste in films. I like Tarkovsky and Eisenstein, I’m familiar with the Dogme manifesto, and I write for two different film websites. Why, then, did I have such a good time watching not only a stupid, badly-made film, but a stupid, badly-made film in a subgenre (jump-scare horror) that I can’t stand? Simple: Diana.

For those who haven’t seen Lights Out, Diana is the film’s monster. You see, unlike the Paranormal Activity films, which keep the ghosts invisible, or the Insidious franchise, which keeps them visible enough that you can see just how rubbish they are, Lights Out handles its monster perfectly. Diana is very well-designed; she’s human-ish, but there’s something ever so slightly off about her. The long, matted hair, the barely-seen claws, and that way of moving that’s just somehow wrong combine to make her a truly creepy creature. On top of that, Sandberg knows exactly how much of her to show, and when. Sometimes she creeps, emerging into frame slowly to draw out the tension; but ten, sometimes she simply stands there, bold as brass, terrifyingly real.

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This, then, is what the title of this review alludes to: even a really, really bad film can be salvaged by a good monster. This hold true across time and medium; Silence of the Lambs would have long since fallen into obscurity were it not for the two antagonists, whose presence elevates the film it from bad to watchable. And who would remember Bram Stoker’s semi-readable scribblings had he not given us Count Dracula? Just as a great protagonist can make us invest ourselves in a film, a really good antagonist can do the same, lodging an otherwise forgettable experience in our consciousness.

I won’t pretend that Lights Out truly scared me – I had no problem turning off the lights last night, and my sleep wasn’t troubled by nightmares. But while I was in the cinema, I was caught up in the film; there were moments when I couldn’t ignore how stupid the film was (and I wasn’t the only one – I heard laughter from the audience at least once during the climax), but as soon as the lights started to flicker, or I heard the sound of claws scraping against the wall, adrenaline took over. It was almost as if there was a struggle at the heart of the film between Sandberg and writer Eric Heisserer, with the former determined to bring some life to the latter’s dead, pointless screenplay.

Seriously, the script is bad – were it not for Diana being so well done, this film would have been so terrible as to feel insulting. Believe me when I say that making a film like this scary is like a quadruple amputee climbing Everest – it inspires both admiration and sadness that anyone should find themselves in that position. I wouldn’t pay to watch this film – not even the four pounds that Romford’s Premier cinema charges for a ticket – but I can’t bring myself to condemn it either. I do, however, hope that Eric Heisserer never gets near another horror film for the rest of his career.

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